31 January 2007

Maybe the Witness is Me

Filed under: Genesis 1, Language — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

Three weeks ago I put up a post at Open Source Theology summarizing my understanding of what a “True Myth” might be, based on a couple of posts I’d previously put up here. The discussion has been a stimulating one. Eventually the other participants in the discussion (one of them being samlcarr, who since Christmas Eve has been having an extended conversation with Ivan here at ktismatics) invited me to put forward my own exegesis of Genesis 1 — which I did. Interaction around the exegesis too has been gratifying. As we near the end of that part of the conversation, I just put up this summary comment:

It’s customary to interpret the Bible by the Bible, to regard the entire canon as an integrated whole by which the reader can make sense of the separate parts. For Christians the life of Jesus is interpreted in the historical context of Israel and Abraham, of the “first Adam” and the creation that was made “through Him and for Him.” Reciprocally, the Creation story acquires eschatological meaning by pointing forward to Israel and the Word made flesh and the new/renewed creation. This holistic hermeneutic both builds and reinforces a coherent worldview. If, on the other hand, the reader focuses on the details rather than the big picture, the holistic coherence can sometimes feel a bit forced. Any isolated bit of text supports alternative readings, but it has to be made to fit into the whole picture. Sometimes the fit isn’t perfect.

Genesis 1 seems to be a straightforward narrative about a historic event. The story is of a piece with the rest of the Bible as it has come down to us (discrepancies with the second Creation narrative of Gen. 2-3 notwithstanding). The reason we’ve explored alternative interpretations is that the story doesn’t fit inside the “book of nature” as written by modern empirical science. There are three basic strategies for resolving the discrepancies: either natural science is wrong, or the text is wrong, or the traditional ways of reading the narrative are wrong. In this post we’ve been exploring the third way.

Reading Genesis 1 as a “True Myth” resolves discrepancies with natural science by freeing the text from literal interpretation. True Myth turns Genesis 1 into an allegorical story about something other than the creation: the superiority of the Hebrew God, say, or the importance of the Sabbath to religious practice. We’ve also touched on some alternative literal readings. Extend the timeline from six days to six eons. Insert an extended “gap” between verse 1 and 2, during which the original creation deteriorated. Re-envision the narrative scenario as the repeated alternation between the eternal-spiritual register and the temporal-material.

I’ve offered a different literal interpretation, one in which God creates conscious awareness of the material universe. This reading reconciles the text with natural science essentially by seeing God as the first natural scientist. The downside from a Judeo-Christian perspective is that Genesis 1 remains silent about how the physical universe began. This isn’t a bad thing for those of us with no a priori theistic beliefs but with confidence in the modern scientific method. What difference whether God created the material world, or intelligently designed it, or had absolutely nothing to do with it? Isn’t it more important for God to be able to define the meaning of things and to teach that ability to humanity? Man could never have wondered about the origins of the universe until he first grasped the idea of a universe. To create the conscious awareness of something: it’s not the same as creating that thing, but surely it is an act of creation in its own right and not merely a metaphor? Surely it is man’s sentience rather than his raw power that sets him apart from the rest of the beasts and makes him more like the God in whose image he is created? And doesn’t this theory of Genesis 1 recapitulate the “anthropic principle” of cutting-edge astrophysics?

… and so on. Inevitably I find myself defending my exegesis, arguing its merits when they aren’t sufficiently self-evident, seeing in it the one true reading hidden since the foundation of the earth. Who is the unnamed and previously undetected witness I place at the scene of the creation? Maybe it’s me. Trying to put myself in the narrator’s shoes, seeing what he saw, hearing the words that elohim spoke – maybe without realizing it I inserted myself into the story. There are worse mistakes a reader can make.

Perhaps the lesson is a postmodern one: Genesis 1 is open enough to sustain a limitless number of possible interpretations. An Eastern monist will see in Genesis 1 the universe emerging as an emanation of pure Mind. A Gnostic will see a secondary deity mistakenly creating an imperfect universe. One Christian will see the triune God creating everything from nothing and establishing the precedent for the new Creation in Christ; another will see a well-meaning storyteller trying to capture something beyond his grasp. One scientific secularist will see a teacher explaining the basics of natural science to his students; another will see the source of an anti-scientific superstition. How you interpret the text depends on what presuppositions you bring to the text and what worldview sustains you. But the interpretation also depends on the text itself, which has outlasted a hundred generations of exegetes. The ability to see this one ancient text from so many different points of view is surely a tribute to human creativity. Whether this hermeneutical flexibility is a sign of man’s goodness or of his corruption is, of course, open to question.

30 January 2007

Musica Universalis (Crosby continued)

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

The classical Greeks thought of music as a kind of mathematics. A medieval scholar who had mastered the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – moved on to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Arithmetic is pure number, geometry is number in space, music is number in time, astronomy is number in space and time. But music, says Crosby, was the only one of the four members of the quadrivium in which measurement had immediate practical application.

Medieval European music was not quantified sound. Gregorian chant had no “beat”: its rhythms conformed to the flow of the Latin text and the spirit of the liturgy. The pitch generally went up and down at agreed-upon places, but there was no uniformity of practice as to precise intervals. Music was performed from memory, which became quite challenging as the number of chants began to increase. No one wrote the music down, because no one had yet invented an adequate system of musical notation.

The musical staff, developed in the 11th century, was Europe’s first graph: The x-axis measures time from left to right; the y-axis measures pitch. The intervals of the scale were standardized around an old and familiar hymn of the time:

Ut queant laxis Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum Famuli tuorum
Sove polluti Labii reatum
Sancte Iohannes

If you knew the melody, then you knew the standard pitch intervals and their names: ut, re, mi, fa, so, la, si.

Chants were sung solo or in unison: there were no harmony parts. The mid-9th century witnessed the introduction of a high harmony on top of the traditional melody. Eventually the traditional chant part was reduced to a low drone, freeing the soprano to embellish. By the end of the 12th century Leonin and Perotin, the first masters of this new polyphonic music, were actually composing new tunes in addition to adapting the traditional songs.

The works of Leonin and Perotin were equivalent in innovation to the Gothic cathedrals. It is probable that they were first performed in one of the most magnificent of these cathedrals, Notre Dame de Paris. As Western music moved from Gregorian simplicity to polyphonic complexity, it also moved from the cloister and countryside to the cathedral and the city, that is to say, into the realm of the university and marketplace. From the 12th to the 14th century Paris was the center for the development of Western polyphony, as for so much else.

Popular music began finding its way into the sacred chant harmonies. Virtuosos became famous. And the Schoolmen at the University applied themselves to music: its structure and logic, the proportionalities of pitch and meter, its genres and subgenres, its logic and grammar. The annotation for a “rest” as the absence of sound was introduced around the same time as the number zero began circulating in the West. Standardized proportional time units (whole notes, half notes, quarters, eighths, etc.) were added to the musical staff, making it possible for performers to play more metrically complex harmonies. Musical time became an abstract measuring stick into which the composer could insert notes like variables in an equation. Rather than restricting musical expression, annotation set it free. Ensembles could play innovative and complex pieces without sounding like noise. Musical innovation became the norm rather than the exception. 12th century Paris experienced the kind of artistic explosion we usually associate with the Italian Renaissance.

Musical annotation — the visual representation of sound — converged on its modern standardized form at least fifty years before the invention of the mechanical clock. Did the invention of modern music and what Crosby calls its faith in absolute time influence the modern Western worldview? Galileo, Descartes, Kepler and Huyghens were trained musicians; all of them wrote about music.

28 January 2007

Big Fat Liar?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:16 am

My wife, daughter and I watched a download of Big Fat Liar last night; this morning it inspired a few political thoughts.

I was living in France when the war talk began, and I couldn’t believe it was happening. I participated in an antiwar march in Nice that drew maybe 6,000 people; in the months leading up to the invasion there were turnouts in the hundreds of thousands in big cities in Europe and around the world. The French believed that Bush was forcing the war idea, that the American people were not behind him. The French were wrong: according to PollingReport, more than three-fourths of the American public supported the American invasion of Iraq at the time. Even before 9/11, two out of three Americans said they would favor ousting Saddam from power by military force.

Hillary Clinton acknowledges that she made a mistake in supporting the congressional authorization for the war. She said she was lied to by the Administration. I don’t believe her.

Even at the time it seemed clear that most of the publicly-available evidence of Iraqi WMDs and collaboration with al-Qaida was either transparently shaky or already disproven. If a layman like me could see it, surely the Congress could. I believe that the Congress, including the Democrats, went along with the case that Bush and Powell put before the world knowing that it was a deception. Why? I’d say it was largely a matter of patriotic zeal. America was pissed after 9/11, America was already pissed at Saddam after Gulf War One, America was ready to attack. The Democrats, I believe, could have exposed the deception but didn’t. Either they were afraid of political backlash for being perceived as unpatriotic, or they too really wanted to kick Saddam’s ass.

Now that the war effort is floundering and public opinion has shifted, I suspect the American public will accept Hillary’s explanation. We will not want to remember how enthusiastic we once were about this war. We will want to disavow complicity. We will look for someone to blame. It’s a lot easier to say we were deceived than to admit that we were willing to lie to ourselves.

27 January 2007

From the Ear to the Eye

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 4:19 pm

We’ve been following Alfred Crosby as he tracks the gradual shift toward quantitative thinking during the late Middle Ages. But, says Crosby, what struck the match that set Western culture ablaze was an enhanced and generalized sense of the visual. Consider literacy. Traditionally the main organ for receiving knowledge was the ear. People didn’t read; they listened to oral recitations of Scripture or epics or tales. Writing was speech on a page, so people typically read aloud — scriptoria and libraries were noisy places in the Middle Ages. There were no separations between words and no punctuation, so it was easier to understand the text by ear than by sight. St. Augustine marveled that when his mentor, St. Anselm, read, his eyes scanned the page, and his heart, explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Augustine speculated that Anselm was saving his voice for public recitations.

It was probably the sheer volume of texts flooding into Europe that stimulated 13th century scholars to read more quickly, silently, by sight rather than by ear. Copyists began making texts easier on the eye. Reading, which had been a kind of public performance, became an individual private act — and a potentially heretical one, as the Reformation would soon demonstrate.

We’ll continue following Crosby as he illustrates how the shift to visualization transformed other aspects of Western culture.

26 January 2007

Time, Space, Math

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 4:14 pm

More from Crosby’s The Measure of Reality. Here are some of the quantitative advances that helped transform medieval Western Europe into the most powerful place on earth. (This post is my first use of my new computer – a MacBook. Hopefully it won’t crash a couple times a day like my old PC did.)

Clocks. People tend to think of time as a continuous flow, so the medievalists based their inventions for measuring time on flowing substances like water, sand and mercury. The Chinese invented a mechanical clock in the 10th century, but it wasn’t until late in the 13th century that some anonymous European rethought the basic metaphor, conceiving of time as a succession of discrete quanta. The key technological breakthrough was the “escapement” – a kind of oscillating notched gear that regularly interrupts the descent of a weight into thousands of small steps per day. Soon every big city in Europe, and then even the smaller ones, made sure it had at least one clock. It was the one piece of complicated machinery the average Joe encountered in everyday life. The clockwork mechanism itself became a metaphor for how God might operate the universe: not like an organism but like a machine.

Maps. The compass found its way from Asia to Europe in the 11th century. In the late 13th century the portolano was invented: a map of coastlines with compass courses drawn on them with a straightedge. But a really useful navigational map would show accurate distances as well as headings. Around 1400 a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia arrived in Florence by way of Constantinople. In the 2nd century Ptolemy slapped a gridwork across the earth’s surface, even compensating mathematically for the earth’s curvature. By the time the Americas and the Pacific were discovered, mapmakers already had a way to represent them.

Astronomy. In the 14th century, the Frenchman Nicole Oresme wondered aloud why God would put the earth at the center of the universe. Why wouldn’t the center be somewhere in the heavens, where God lives? Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century cardinal and philosopher, argued that God transcended the universe, so from God’s perspective there was no center. In the early 16th century Copernicus the Pole reintroduced an old Platonic and pagan idea: maybe the earth revolves around the sun. The heavens are huge: how could they circle the earth in a day? Far easier to set the earth in motion. Copernicus was a mathematician, and he performed exhaustive calculations to describe the heliocentric model quantitatively. The dimensions of the Aristotelian model were large; in Copernicus’s system they were nearly inconceivably vast – at least 400,000 times larger. Later in the 16th century Giordano Bruno, a monk, described the universe in terms that anticipated Newton, but that would also get him burned at the stake:

There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void: in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow; this space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, sense-perception nor nature assign to it a limit.

Mathematics. In The Geometries of Qualities and Motion, Oresme generalized the key principle that had made clocks possible:

For measuring continuous things it is necessary that points, lines, and surfaces, or their properties be imagined… Although indivisible points, or lines, are nonexistent, still it is necessary to feign them.

Roman numerals remained the dominant counting system in Europe until the 16th century. Arabic numerals greatly aided calculation, but only if you understood the place values of numbers lined up in columns, and if you could get your head around the mysterious number zero. Numbers are for counting things that are; zero is a sign for what is not. People started mixing the numbering systems together; e.g., IVOII meant 1502: I in the thousands column, V in the hundreds… The signs + and – didn’t show up in print until 1489. The 16th century witnessed the invention of the = sign, the decimal system for expressing fractions, and algebraic notation. Mathematical advances also stimulated mystical applications: astrology grew in popularity, and kabbalistic numerical interpretations of the Bible abounded.

25 January 2007

Crosby: Necessary but Insufficient Causes

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:52 pm

What pulled medieval Western Europe out of its cultural isolation and stagnation? Alfred Crosby cites a number of influences in chapter 3 of The Measure of Reality.

Expansion. The population may have tripled between 1000 and 1340, with Venice and London approaching 100,000 inhabitants apiece (a fifth the size of Cairo at the time). The plague killed off maybe a third of the populace, but recovery was rapid. The Crusades began in the eleventh century, exposing Westerners into pagan and Islamic cultures. Trade increased, mostly within Europe but also with the East. In the cities, or bourgs, the bourgeoisie began to emerge: merchants, financiers, lawyers, accountants, mill owners.

Decentralization. The Muslim, Indian and Chinese civilizations were well-organized, unified, stable: strong but rigid. The medieval West was a patchwork of kingdoms, fiefdoms and city-states without a unifying culture or language. In short, Europe was weak and disorganized but flexible. Because it had no center, it had centers everywhere. If a dissenter irritated the local authorities enough to be banished, he could usually find sanctuary elsewhere without having to travel very far. The local lords and bishops weren’t strong enough to suppress the bourgeoisie. Because the West had no unifying culture of its own, Westerners felt free to borrow from the Greeks, the Persians, the Egyptians, and anybody else who had something worth emulating. Consequently, Crosby says, the West, unlike its rivals, had a chronic need for exlainers, adjusters, and resynthesizers.

Confusion. In the twelfth century Western scholars began studying with Jews and Muslims in Spain, returning with translations of Plato, Ptolemy, Avicenna, and especially Aristotle, who seemed able to explain with precision just about everything. To make sense of the newly-available classical learning in light of traditional ways of understanding, the urban intellectuals began organizing themselves into universities. Paris was the first, which after a stormy beginning received papal protection in 1231. It had a few notable professors in the early days: Abelard, Albert the Great, Aquinas, Bonaventure. The Schoolmen organized the new wealth of ancient scholarship, inventing handy tools like chapter titles, table of contents, hierarchically organized outlines, cross-references, citations, concordances, the index, and alphabetical-ordered library catalogs and dictionaries. Around 1200 Stephen Langdon devised the chapter and verse system for the books of the Bible. The Schoolmen, not the merchants, were the first to make the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals. Trying to make sense of a disparate mass of knowledge demanded that the Schoolmen achieve a logical rigor and a lucidity of expression unknown since the Greeks, reaching its zenith in the work of Aquinas. Says Crosby: In our time the word medieval is often used as a synonym for muddle-headedness, but it can be more accurately used to indicate precise definition and meticulous reasoning, that is to say, clarity. Though the Schoolmen’s thinking was virtually mathematical in its orderly precision, though they began comparing things previously considered incomparable, rarely did they actually measure or count anything.

Money. Meanwhile, what had long been a barter and exchange economy gradually moved toward a cash economy. This meant that everything saleable also had to be measurable – it had to have a cash price. Even the value of a worker’s time could be measured monetarily. In 1308 Pope Clement V decreed that pardoning a year’s time in purgatory was worth one pence, to be contributed to the Crusades. Western Europe certainly wasn’t the first monetary economy. They just seemed to be more obsessed with the money itself – exchange rates, interest rates, debts and credits, the purity of the gold it was made of.

24 January 2007

The Venerable Model

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:49 am

One of my favorite books ever is The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, by Alfred Crosby. The raison d’etre of this book, Crosby says, is to describe an acceleration after 1250 or so in the West’s shift from qualitative perception to, or at least toward, quantitative perception. The book devotes a separate chapter to each of several domains of life where this transition from the qualitative toward quantitative took place. He sets the stage with a chapter entitled “The Venerable Model,” in which he offers a glimpse of the qualitative mindset that predominated in medieval Europe.

Europe was a backwater then, sparsely populated by barbarians who lived far from the centers of Islamic and Far Eastern culture: a source of eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables, and swords, as Ibn Khurradadhbeh described it in the mid-ninth century. Crosby characterizes the European picture of the universe as clear, complete, and appropriately awesome without being stupefying. Reality was made up of essentially heterogeneous stuff: fire rises and rocks fall not because of gravity or different amounts of base elements, but because they just did: it’s what fire and rocks are like.

Time was a more-or-less sort of thing. Nothing was very old: maybe 300 human generations had passed since the very beginning. Augustine came up with a system for dividing history into ages based on the seven days of the Genesis 1 narrative: Each age began with a big event: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham, David, the Captivity of Judah, the birth of Christ, the Second Coming. In Daniel’s dream surely the fourth beast referred to the Roman Empire, which would persist until the end days – meaning that the Europeans still thought of themselves as living in that Empire. Hours weren’t equal in length: the day was divided into seven intervals by the church bells: matins, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, and compline. Because the length of the day depends on the time of year, the time between the intervals varied dramatically between summer and winter. Originally the none was rung in the midafternoon, but monks on fasts weren’t allowed to eat before none. So the none got earlier and earlier until finally, in England, it was chimed at midday: none = noon.

The earth was encircled by layers of transparent heavenly spheres on which the heavenly bodies were affixed and which moved in perfect circles. Nothing was very far away: Roger Bacon said that if a man walked 20 miles a day it would take him 14 years, 7 months, and 29 days to reach the moon. The earth was corrupt and not worth knowing much about. East was the most powerful direction because that’s where Eden is: the altar was always built at the east end of the church. Because the crucifixion was the pivotal event of all time, it followed that Jerusalem was the center of the earth (see Ezekiel 5:5). Europeans believed that no one lived in the tropics or the southern hemisphere. Maps were out of proportion, like those “New Yorkers’ view of the world” maps.

They weren’t very good at math in medieval Europe. There were no signs for plus or minus, divide or equal. They had complicated systems for “finger reckoning” – counting on your fingers. There was no zero. During Roman times the abacus made its way to Europe from Asia, but by the sixth century it had been forgotten, not to return for another 500 years. For the medievalists the meaning of numbers was more mystical than computational.

Sure they made mistakes. But, says Crosby,

…our real problem with the Venerable Model is that it is dramatic, even melodramatic, and teleological: God and Purpose loom over all… Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, like the shaman, like all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time, wanted immediately conclusive and emotionally satisfying explanations. They longed for a universe that, in Camus’s phrase, “can love and suffer.”


23 January 2007

I’ve Been Tagged!

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:25 am

Thanks to Jon Erdman at Theos Project, I’ve been personally selected to answer a few survey questions. Instead of telling you my answers, I’ll give you the right answers.

1. What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)

Right now. Because I’m lucky enough to be doing what I love and getting paid for it.

2. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)

Sit under a tree and read a book

3. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)

Climb K2.

4. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)

Be a better listener, because everybody has so much wisdom. Windsurf, because it’s so free.

5. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)

Mother Teresa, because she was one gutsy lady.

6. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?

Loyal, honest, nerdy.

7. Now list two more words you wish described you…

Hot, cool.

8. What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)

Saving the rainforests. Jazz. My wife/husband.

9. Write–and answer–one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)

Question: Don’t you wish you were me? Answer: No, not really.

Questions? Disagreements? Alternative right answers? How many did you get right? (Note: I’m not going to tag anyone else, since it might make all those other great people who weren’t chosen feel bad.)

21 January 2007

Three Analysts Walked Into a Bar

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:21 pm

There’s this story that Jacques Lacan used to tell about Freud coming to America for the first time. Freud and his erstwhile protégé Karl Jung sailed from Europe together. As the ship passed under the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of New York Harbor. Freud turned to Jung and said, “They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague.”

Get it? Here’s neo-Freudian, neo-Lacanian Jacques-Alain Miller’s interpretation:

Normally we welcome the analyst as a therapist provided he/she brings along a method to cure-the psychoanalyst as a new curing method. Contrariwise, Freud's Witz (joke) posits the analyst as the one who hands over the disease, not the cure... as if Jung and Freud were two fundamentalist terrorists sneaking into the United States.

Freud said that jokes, like dreams, express subconsciously repressed instincts for sex and aggression – Freud the terrorist infecting America with a sexually-transmitted disease. Lacan sees in the joke evidence of Freud’s hubris:

To catch their author in its trap, Nemesis had only to take him at his word. We could be justified in fearing that Nemesis has added a first-class return ticket.

Lacan interprets the United States as Freud’s Nemesis. According to the Encyclopedia Mythica:

In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the goddess of divine justice and vengeance. Her anger is directed toward human transgression of the natural, right order of things and of the arrogance causing it. Nemesis pursues the insolent and the wicked with inflexible vengeance. She is portrayed as a serious looking woman with in her left hand a whip, a rein, a sword, or a pair of scales. In the Hellenistic period she was portrayed with a steering wheel.

So here’s the mythic hero Freud sailing into the West, taunting the immense statue of Nemesis standing guard over the New World. But, says Miller, tragedy awaits:

The hubris and Nemesis strike back: the real victim of the challenge thrown at the Statue of Liberty and to all that it represents in the modern world is psychoanalysis itself, Freud's creature.

In the glare of Liberty’s torch no subconscious desire or fear can hide in the shadows. But it’s not denial that characterizes America; it’s unhindered expression. We mean what we say and say what we mean, and what we mean is sex and violence, and we never stop talking about it. The subconscious has been evacuated; only the inhibitions are inhibited. We spill our guts; we give birth to our inner child; the inner child screams out what it wants. And what does the voice of the Father have to say to the inner child? “Go fer it, dude. Pursue happiness. Squeeze every drop of enjoyment you can out of life.”

America didn’t just catch Freud’s disease: it altered the metabolism of the disease and assimilated it into the organism. America infected the disease.


20 January 2007

Triple Digits!

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:06 am

Remember late last year when Ivan the atheist got caught in the Jesus Creed spamcatcher and the conversation got rerouted over here? Well that conversation has continued, until now there are more than 100 comments on that one post. It’s kind of become a free-ranging, civil discussion of Christianity and atheism — almost a blog within a blog. Here’s the link.

19 January 2007

The Combination is Lethal

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:04 pm

Thinking about the proposed Iraqi surge and related political quaverings got me thinking back to the beginning. Here’s what Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 through 2005, said about his involvement in the former Secretary of State’s presentation to the United Nations on Iraq‘s weapons of mass destruction: “I wish I had not been involved in it. I look back on it, and I still say it was the lowest point in my life.”

There’s no need to revisit the details – no, I take that back: there is a. need to revisit them, and to realize just what a pile of crap it really was. And to think we went to war over this. Here, then, are a few excerpts from Powell’s 5 February 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council.

* * * *

I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling. What you will see is an accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior.

The inspectors can look all they want, and they will find nothing… The Iraqis are busy doing all they possibly can to ensure that inspectors succeed in finding absolutely nothing.

My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

What’s being hidden? Why? There’s only one answer to the why: to deceive, to hide.

The photos that I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me… But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they indicate to our imagery specialists.

The bunkers are clean when the inspectors get there. They found nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are not assertions. These are facts, corroborated by many sources, some of them sources of the intelligence services of other countries.

It took the inspectors four years to find out that Iraq was making biological agents. How long do you think it will take the inspectors to find even one of these 18 trucks?

We know that Iraq has embedded key portions of its illicit chemical weapons infrastructure within its legitimate civilian industry. To all outward appearances, even to experts, the infrastructure looks like an ordinary civilian operation. Illicit and legitimate production can go on simultaneously; or, on a dime, this dual-use infrastructure can turn from clandestine to commercial and then back again… Any inspections of such facilities would be unlikely to turn up anything prohibited. Call it ingenuous or evil genius, but the Iraqis deliberately designed their chemical weapons programs to be inspected. It is infrastructure with a built-in ally.

So it’s not just the photo, and it’s not an individual seeing the photo. It’s the photo and then the knowledge of an individual being brought together to make the case.

The question before us, all my friends, is when will we see the rest of the submerged iceberg?

Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons… And we have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use them. He wouldn’t be passing out the orders if he didn’t have the weapons or the intent to use them.

I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things…

Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with Al Qaida. These denials are simply not credible… Early Al Qaida ties were forged by secret, high-level intelligence service contacts with Al Qaida, secret Iraqi intelligence high-level contacts with Al Qaida. Iraqis continued to visit bin Laden in his new home in Afghanistan.

Some believe, some claim these contacts do not amount to much. They say Saddam Hussein’s secular tyranny and Al Qaida’s religious tyranny do not mix. I am not comforted by this thought. Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and Al Qaida together.

The nexus of poisons and terror is new. The nexus of Iraq and terror is old. The combination is lethal. With this track record, Iraqi denials of supporting terrorism take the place alongside the other Iraqi denials of weapons of mass destruction. It is all a web of lies. When we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we are not confronting the past, we are confronting the present. And unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.

We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more. Given Saddam Hussein’s history of aggression, given what we know of his grandiose plans, given what we know of his terrorist associations and given his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not some day use these weapons at a time and the place and in the manner of his choosing at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond? The United States will not and cannot run that risk to the American people. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world.

18 January 2007

Is the Audience Merely the President?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 1:24 pm

President Bush is trying to rally Congressional support for his Iraqi surge. Refering to a resolution co-sponsored by 3 Senate Democrats opposing Bush’s plan, White House spokesman Tony Snow asks:

“What message does Congress intend to give? And who does it think the audience is? Is the audience merely the president? Is it the voting American public or, in an age of instant communication, is it also al-Qaida?”

In a statement announcing her decision to support the resolution, moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said, “Now is time for the Congress to make its voice heard.” Carl Levin (D-Michigan), one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, said:

“Just how serious this resolution is, although it’s not binding, is reflected by the fact that the Republican leader in the Senate has threatened to filibuster it.”

Why does a decision about war turn into a debate about “message”? When the seriousness of a message is measured by the opposition’s willingness to talk it to death, we know we’ve got trouble in Washington.

17 January 2007

Alienation of the Literary Production Sector

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:33 pm

I mentioned this guy before, a novelist Anne and I had coffee with back in Boulder. In the course of a long conversation I asked him if he ever heard from his readers. Not very often, he said. It’s not surprising. How would you go about getting in touch with a writer whose book you liked – or didn’t like, for that matter? This guy has a website, but no blog and no email address to be found anywhere. I once wrote to a writer c/o his publisher, but since I never heard back I have no idea whether he ever got my letter.

He said that most of the feedback he gets from readers is Amazon reviews. I looked at his Amazon listings: maybe three or four hundred online reviews per book. Helpful? Not really. Mostly he thinks the reviewers are showing off, trying to get readers for themselves.

Amazon has a frequent-reviewer recognition program. You can become a Starred Reviewer, a Top Ten Thousand Reviewer, a Top Thousand reviewer, and so on – these might not be the right titles, but you know what I mean. Earning this recognition is based on how many times someone who read your reviews found them to be “helpful.” Amazon regards this vote count as a proxy for “quality content.”

Which of course got me to thinking. If you write high-quality reviews, and a lot of them, you might get widely recognized as helpful. But what else might get you there quicker? First, you’ve got to get your review seen by a lot of people. That means reviewing books that people are already interested in. Best sellers are the best bet. Books climb the best-seller lists quickly, so get your review posted quickly so lots of people can see it. Next: are positive or negative reviews more likely to be seen as helpful? After a quick informal survey I concluded that 5-star reviews are regarded the most helpful. People want to latch onto popular memes – it makes you popular by contact. If you’re deciding whether to buy a best-seller, you don’t really want to hear bad news about it. You want to be persuaded to get on the bandwagon quick. So: write upbeat reviews about already-popular books and you’re well on your way to becoming a popular reviewer.

Meanwhile here’s the poor writer. What impact is my book having on the readers? Look at the sales receipts. But popularity isn’t the same thing as quality. What do the readers really think of the book? When even the reviewers are trying to get popular, the writer may never know. Just like Marx said: capitalism alienates the worker from his own work.


16 January 2007

Seeing the Beginning from the End

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 9:46 am

[I keep thinking I’m done with the Genesis book for the time being. I’ve written a book proposal and tightened up the first few chapters of the book, getting ready to contact some agents. Then I find out it’s better to send a smattering of chapters from throughout the book – which means I’ve got to go back and do some more editing on chapters I thought I could leave alone for awhile. Here’s a little bit of new text I wrote last night to fill a gap in the last chapter of the book…]

Believers in the Judeo-Christian God live inside a self-contained reality that describes its own beginning. There may be disagreement on details, but the idea of a creator-God is an essential strand linking the individual with the community, the present with the past, the reader with the text. Did the idea of a divine creator originate in Genesis 1, or is it an a priori intuition that the reader imposes on the text? By now it’s hard to tell. If you watch a movie often enough the opening scene doesn’t just point toward its inevitable end: it contains the end. Your interpretation of the beginning is determined by how you know the story is going to turn out.

Evolutionary science is an empirical study of beginnings. But if we as a species had a different kind of brain – a brain like all the other creatures on our planet, for example – we might never have been able to imagine this particular sort of beginning. If we’d happened to live before Darwin we wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. Was Darwin’s insight inevitable, the product of those very forces he described? Or could some other cultural trajectory have spun itself out, so that we wouldn’t have been able to look back at the creation of evolutionary science as a turning point in our own self-understanding? Are we currently living through a turning point, a historical interval that future generations will look back on as formative but that we can’t even recognize? There’s no way of knowing; we’re stuck in the middle of history. We can’t understand the past until we reach the future.

You look back on your life and distinguish turning points: events that shaped your destiny. But if your life had turned out differently, would those same events have loomed so large in your own genesis story? Do defining moments create you, or do you create them after the fact just to make some sense of how you happened to end up here? You live inside this life and no other, so it’s hard to gain perspective on what might have been.


15 January 2007

I Read Them With Interest

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:09 pm

So I’m getting ready to send my book proposal for The Seven Creations around to some literary agents. One possibility I’m looking at is the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York. So and I’m looking for info about this agency on the internet and I come across a discussion on WritersNet. Somebody says this about Brandt & Hochman:

One of its agent wrote me a rejection, thus:

Thank you for sending the pages to your novel. I read them with interest. But I must admit I was not fully drawn to the material. My personal feeling is that the storytelling seemed weaker than I usually like, and to my mind the characters felt underdeveloped. I never really felt I knew them. Without being passionate and with so many personal reservations I would not have the right instincts for selling it. I'm sorry I can't help more. I hope you will get other readings and I wish you success with your writing.



Brandt & Hochman

A courteous enough reply, I thought. Then comes the next comment in the string:

Thank you so much for that! Just last night I received the identical, word-for-word rejection from you-know-who! This really helps me in my understanding of these rejections, because I thought that the wording applied directly to my novel - and I did find it hard to believe that he found my storytelling weak, which is usually what I get most praised on. Jeez, I thought I could tell whether I was getting a form letter or not, but this time, they really pulled the wool over my eyes! As usual, I'm grateful to Writers Net - and all you wonderful folks! Thanks!

Then, awhile later, the first guy again:

And my writer friend, quoted above, send him a non-fiction proposal, and she got the same identical rejection, which caused her to laugh. It's amazing how they attempt to masquerade in such lazy fashion!

A third commenter summarizes his thoughts on the matter:

Well, I guess they feel that if a form letter works, why not work it? LOL Maybe they want to be seen as benevolent and pro-writer but don't want to take the time to actually read the material so they crank out a standard form letter and never stop to think that any two rejectees might compare notes.

Finally there’s a fourth guy, who got a personalized rejection letter from B&H:

Whether a rejection is personal or form, all rejection letters are REAL rejections. I wasn't flattered that it was a personal letter. Bottom line it's yes or no, you're thrilled or pissed or whatever.

So, in dealing with a literary agency would I rather: (a) get no reply at all; (b) have them tell me my book sucks in very specific ways; or (c) get a form rejection letter tempered with encouragement that’s automatically generated without anyone ever having read what I sent them? (BTW, I’m not sending my stuff to Brandt & Hochman.)


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